Army Dreamers: A Backwards Salute to Recruitment Films

by Mark Simpson, The Guardian

As a boy grow­ing up in the 1960s and 70s I was raised to fight The Second World War all over again. Airfix mod­els. Commando com­ics. Air tat­toos in June. Watching The Battle of Britain and The Longest Day on telly with my dad, just so I’d know what to do if I ever found myself pinned down on a Normandy beach or with an Me 109E on my tail.

All of which made me easy prey to an RAF recruit­ing film about a buc­can­eer squad­ron train­ing sortie from Gibraltar, set to a Vangelis soundtrack. I promptly signed up to the air cadets and spent Tuesday after­noons and a week or two in the sum­mer hols wear­ing itchy shirts and a Frank Spencer-style beret, learn­ing how to march without fall­ing over. I loved it, and would prob­ably have signed up for the real thing if it hadn’t been for a sixth-form flir­ta­tion with Quakerism.

Alas, that old recruit­ing film isn’t included in They Stand Ready, a new col­lec­tion of Central Office of Information (COI) armed forces recruit­ment and pro­pa­ganda shorts made between 1946 and 1985, released by the BFI. But sev­eral sim­ilar ones are, includ­ing Tornado (1985), about a sim­u­lated attack on a Warsaw Pact surface-to-air mis­sile site, and HMS Sheffield (1975), about life onboard a Royal Navy frig­ate (that was later hit by an Exocet dur­ing the Falklands war with the loss of 30 lives).

With their prom­ise of escape from hum­drum life, oppor­tun­it­ies for new mates, good times, for­eign travel and play­ing with really expens­ive toys – though strangely silent on the pos­sible phys­ical cost – these films offer a glimpse into the list­less, regi­men­ted world that was mid-to-late 20th-century civil­ian Britain, wait­ing impa­tiently for Xboxes, EasyJet, the inter­net and proper drugs to turn up.

Perhaps it’s because prime min­is­ter David Cameron is around the same age as me – or pos­sibly because the armed forces, or at least the army, are still largely run by lah-de-dah Ruperts like him – that he seems so nos­tal­gic for this van­ished old world. Cameron recently vowed to make the forces “front and centre of national life” and “revered” again, in a speech to UK per­son­nel in Afghanistan.

Not that increased prom­in­ence is a guar­an­tee of increased rev­er­ence, how­ever. A short cel­eb­rat­ing national ser­vice, They Stand Ready (1955), which dates from a year before the Suez débâcle punc­tured the UK’s global pre­ten­sions, recalls the last time that the armed forces really were front and centre of national life. Yet con­scrip­tion proved to be highly unpop­u­lar – both with most of those who had to do it and those who had to find some­thing to do with them.

Once the last national ser­vice­men left the ranks in 1963, army life could then be sold as some­thing glam­or­ous and excit­ing instead of an oner­ous black-and-white duty. This is exactly what Ten Feet Tall (1963), a rock’n’roll-soundtracked recruit­ing film does in glor­i­ous Technicolor. It show­cases a matinée-idol young Scottish squaddie’s ruddy com­plex­ion, per­fect white teeth, and the (now omin­ously) nicotine-stained fin­gers of the army careers officer.

• The COI Collection Volume Three: They Stand Ready, a BFI DVD release, avail­able from July 2010